Encroachment

photo by rodolpho.reis (Flickr)
photo by rodolpho.reis (Flickr)

 

“To create, one cannot be constantly other focused.”       Gail Sheehy

 

The pressing demands of daily life have a rather sobering ability to suck all of the creative oxygen out of a room. They don’t even have to be big, catastrophic type demands. Sometimes simply the endless dripping of life’s mundanities can wear away our reserves until there is nothing left. There are just so very many ways to be pulled in the direction of others–in spite of how necessary facing inward is  in order to give free voice to our creativity

The first place my mind went when I read that quote was of that stage of life when noisy, adorable children or loud, boisterous teens are always around. I have such compassion and sympathy for frazzled parents out there who sometimes despair of having two minutes to call their own, let alone actually produce anything anyone might want to read. It is certainly no accident that my own strongest work was produced once my kids left for college.

But within about five minutes of their departure, I quickly discovered there are lots and lots of additional ways to be pulled outward and become other focused.

Extended family
Financial pressures
Mental and emotional clutter
The internet
Social media
Gatekeepers: critique partners, agents, editors, reviewers
The “market”
Readers

To create, we have to go inward and listen. One needs freedom to get lost in the flow. To get bored. For some, this can be easy to accomplish, for others, not so much. A lot will depend on our temperament and stage of life.

Our inability to go inward might very well be because we’re stuck in a stage of life where more immediate needs overwhelm us so thoroughly that we despair of ever writing again. When this happens, it helps to remember that while it is highly possible we can do everything, we very likely won’t be able to do it all at once.

The other mistake we often make is in thinking that because someone we know can do it, that all of us should be able to do ALL THE THINGS AT ONCE as well. Or vice versa—we think that because we can do everything at once, that everyone has that option if they just get serious and disciplined about it. But that completely ignores the reality that all of us have different support systems,  temperaments, coping strategies, and radically different family dynamics. Some people, the lucky, lucky few, will be able to do everything they desire precisely when they desire it, but they are most emphatically the exception. (And yes, I know those lucky few work hard as well, but there is no question that luck is also involved.)

Often, finding the time to write isn’t only about the physical, butt in chair time, but about the more difficult task of finding the mental space and sustained concentration needed for creating.

Emotional and mental clutter is another culprit and often keeps us from being able to access our richest stories. This might stem from unresolved tensions or drama going on in our family of origin, or issues in our immediate family, or a leaking of one into the other. They might be old, unhealthy relationship patterns or ways of seeing ourselves. Perhaps your family role is that of taking on more than your fair share of responsibility, being the social glue or familial fixer, or even the resident accountant during tax season. It can also arise from concerns about what friends or family will think when they read your work.

In the YA community, because we rely so heavily on gatekeepers—parents and teachers and librarians—we talk sometimes about soft censorship, which is the practice of not banning a book or complaining about it, but simply choosing not to put it on the shelves or tell readers about it for fear of the parental hailstorm it might bring down. As writers, we’re very aware of that we can sometimes find ourselves choosing to skirt an issue rather than meet it head on, or try to soft focus it rather than feature it front and center. We can easily end up internalized these “hot topic” issues and choosing not to write about them. This is especially true if the issue is one we experienced intimately within our family. We are not only braving to expose our own hard truths, but issues we have spent our entire lives denying or wishing did not exist. When these concerns leak into our writing,  we are letting others interfere with our creativity and telling our core, essential stories.

Mental clutter isn’t confined to families, however. It could just as easily be that your critique group is rife with the theatrics and backstabbing befitting the middle school cafeteria. Or maybe you find yourself engaging in, or even simply following, all the drama that is rife on the internet.

The internet and social media are incredible tools for writers to use, both for research, staying on top of their industry, and connecting with other writers and readers. But the truth is, we can become overdependent on it until it, too, becomes one more thing encroaching on our writing energies. The seductive lure of the interwebs can make it hard to settle down to our creative work when an entire playground full of playmates in on Twitter or countless memes and cat pictures are being shared on Facebook without us.

Then of course there is the very real, and possibly valid, fear that if we don’t engage in every conversation, connect with every reader, be involved in ALL THE PLATFORMS that we, and more importantly our work, will slowly fade into oblivion and be forgotten.

That is in no way meant to be a social media bashing, by the way, just a cautionary warning to pay attention to how it saps pure creative energy—how it diverts us from that inward path and redirects us so that, once again, we are focusing on others.

Because lets face it, oftentimes it is easier and more entertaining—and offers more immediate gratification—to engage in a social quickie with our peers than to stay focused on that inward work—especially when it is not coming easily.

I often think that forcing ourselves to step back from this sort of distraction requires even more discipline than simply plopping one’s butt in a chair. After all, we are human, and we are writers, so we are fascinated by the interplay of characters and motivations, but after a certain point, it is not providing fodder so much as it is simply a delaying tactic.

Another way we all too often let others interfere with our writing is when we pay too much attention to that mysterious conventional wisdom that circulates on websites and blogs. The agents who tell us a certain story won’t sell, or the editor who implores a writers conference to stop with the rhyming picture books—yet rhyming picture books are still a staple of children’s publishing offerings. Or the romance editors who insist couples need to meet within two pages or have sex seventeen times or whatever. So we collect these bits of conventional wisdom in our head like a dryer vent collects lint until we can’t let any fresh or ‘risky’ things in our books because we know it won’t sell.

The last other I’m going to talk about is the hardest, because it is also at the heart of what we do, and that is readers. Readers are the lifeblood of our industry. Without them, no books would be published and writing would be an even more solitary and isolated exercise than it is now. It is hard to overstate how essential readers are, and how beloved by writers. There is nothing more magical than that moment when, through your work, you reach out and connect with a total stranger.

And yet . . .

Not all readers are going to like our stories.
Or they might like the idea of our story, but not how we executed it.
Because the reading experience itself creates part of the book, not all readers are going to even read what we thought we wrote and will come to some surprising (and not always pleasant) ideas about our meaning or intent.

While constructive critique does have a place in the writing process, it is essential that we not give negative voices more power than they warrant or let them too far into our head. The more time we spend listening to those voices, the more we are turning outward and risk weakening our work. By allowing nay-sayers to take up more space in our creative center than those who love our work, we are in effect de-valuing that connection we have made.

Of course, it is partly human nature to obsess on the negative, but we humans can also work to control the adjustment switch on some of that.

And there is even questionable benefit in letting adoring readers into our head too much when we’re creating. It can mean being distracted by wanting to please them again, to connect with the again, instead of being true to the story we are writing and telling it in the most powerful way  we can.

In what ways do you find yourself being pulled in the direction of others? In what ways does it force you to pull back from your work or to soft censor yourself? Can you let yourself imagine what you would write or how you would write it if you could block out all the others?

 

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About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.

Comments

  1. says

    Robin-

    So here I am, distracted, but even so nodding in agreement with your observations on distractions and their dangers.

    Not to distract from your excellent points, but I want to point out that everything that feels distracting to you or me is to someone else absolutely, utterly, crushingly urgent and important for you and me to pay attention to.

    Some of the best creators of distractions are writers. Every day my inbox is a freight train loaded with blurb requests, pleas for advice on republishing books thirty years out of print, godawful micro-press contracts, links to will-o-the-wisp pirated (maybe) editions, and on and on.

    My job as agent is to deal with such things, and so I do. Plenty of manuscripts arrive too, thankfully, which is reassuring. Folks evidently are finding time to write. My greatest joy and most important mission is to read their work too but, man, its a fight against the distractions.

    However, I am heartened by your ever-wise perspective. When I hit the office today I’m going to turn off auto send/receive and read.

    Later I will take a deep breath and maintain my zen when my inbox fills up with messages with the subject line, “Did you get my e-mail this morning?”

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    • says

      Ha Don! This is the classic perspective shift with every character an antagonist in someone elses story! I hadn’t thought about what a MAJOR distraction we writers must be to agents.

      And yes, so many of those requests for attention and our energies ARE urgent and hugely important for others. The tricky part is determining which are which.

      Good luck with that zen!

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  2. says

    Hehe, I am still in kid phase, which after reading your post, actually seems a lot easier to deal with than the mental clutter. My biggest enemy is the fear of revealing too much through the stories. But what drives me forward is the desire to share. Seems like everything in my life is a struggle between fear and desire, and I have to remember that love casts out fear. My best work has come about by being completely vulnerable, but it is very, very hard to be unless it is with a loved one. So I’m wondering … is each reader a beloved? Perhaps I need to begin thinking that.

    I’m looking forward to those college years!

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    • says

      “Seems like everything in my life is a struggle between fear and desire,”

      Ah yes, Vijaya! This is so so true! It is at the heart of the struggle to create, I think.

      I can really help to think of one reader, one beloved readers, and write to them. I believe that was what Elizabeth Gilbert did with EAT, PRAY, LOVE.

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  3. says

    As one who is bogged down by the demands of life, I can relate to the need to shut everything out and find sacred writing time (on the worst of days, the world around me looks a lot like the zombie picture you chose for this post). Oh, if only it were that easy!

    What it means for me is I must endeavor, every day, to find a time and a place to open up my notes and manuscript(s) document(s) and follow the creative vector a little bit more. So far, for nearly the last two years, I’ve managed to keep this up, and I’m happy with how my projects are evolving.

    There is the issue of creative mental space you mention. Sometimes those many demands pull me in all directions and I wish I could shut the world down just to write. What I find interesting, though, is that this forces me to hold onto my stories fiercer, sometimes even scribbling a sentence or idea on a napkin until I can make it to writing time. Sometimes I will even open my laptop and open my manuscript, just to write a sentence. If an idea is truly worth keeping, I’ll remember it, or, by the time I get to write, it will have a chance to improve while I think about it.

    So, I’ve come to accept that, even though it may be counter-intuitive, my busy academic life enhances my writing, because I am constantly interacting with people and learning about them – in fact, the greatest of story twists have come to me not when sitting at the keyboard, but when I’m interacting with students or while on a walk from one session to the next.

    The goal for me, then, is to somehow capture ideas until I’m able to use them, and I’ve learned to become mobile in this sense – my backpack is a part of my anatomy, since the much-needed laptop and writing notes are contained therein. I believe that 90% of a writer’s job is the thinking that goes on around the actual word-smithing, so it’s not about clearing away the distractions, for me, but about working around them and using them to my advantage.

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    • says

      Graeme, I love so many things about your comments! And I wholeheartedly agree with:

      “I must endeavor, every day, to find a time and a place to open up my notes and manuscript(s) document(s) and follow the creative vector a little bit more.”

      Absolutely. I have written many, many books that way! As have others. It’s not about sequestering ourselves from the human race, but more about letting our need to create giving us to shed the unhealthy, unproductive, drags on our time and energy. But there will always be Real Life stuff that we love and is deserving of our time.

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      • says

        Thanks for that, Robin!
        I enjoy the many thought-provoking posts here. No better way to start my morning that with some coffee and the newest WU post.

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  4. Denise Willson says

    For me, Robin, the key is to cut myself some slack. I write when I can. If I can’t carve out time today, I don’t beat myself up over it, but look forward the time I have tomorrow. Not easy, but vital for me.

    Great post!

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth, and (coming soon) GOT

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  5. says

    Robin, I swear you can read my mind! Or you’re inside my soul somewhere. I’m one of those writers EASILY distracted by all the writing and publishing “talk” out there on the web and hoping I don’t miss anything important. And yet, I still miss A LOT – even if I’m on email and blogs and various social media for several hours throughout my day. The trick for me is to not care so much. To “let it go” as the current popular song says. :-) We could read and participate all day long and still miss MOST OF IT.

    And I need to stop comparing myself to everyone else. (A childhood problem that has been decades in the perfecting.)

    Vijaya, not to depress you, but even when kids get to college they have PROBLEMS, even bigger ones than during childhood. Sometimes heart-wrenching problems that sap your energy and emotional strength and time. Enjoy them while they’re young and adorable and cuddly, it goes by way too fast. :-)

    Thank you, Robin, once again for putting life and writing into perspective. I needed this as I’m right smack in the middle of drafting (pulling my hair out) Book 2 of my YA trilogy due in 6 weeks to my editor at Harper. OY!

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    • says

      Reading minds DOES appear to be one of my super powers, Kim. :-)

      And yes, at a certain point in our career, it’s just not as essential that we follow every. bit. of industry news and publishing talk. It just doesn’t help us write better books, and once we’re under contract, that’s often where our energies are most needed.

      Especially you with your busy family. I swear, just reading your FB updates exhausts me.

      “Vijaya, not to depress you, but even when kids get to college they have PROBLEMS, even bigger ones than during childhood. Sometimes heart-wrenching problems that sap your energy and emotional strength and time.”

      Sadly, I must agree with this. And those problems aren’t ones you can step in and help out with so easily. ;-/

      And good luck with that deadline, Kim!

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    • says

      Wha-a-at? I hope they will hear my voice in their heads (as I did my mother’s). Doesn’t it just want you to send them to a monastery in Tibet? Kids. Sometimes all we can do, even now, is pray for them.

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  6. says

    Oh, Robin, your entire post resonated with me (hate that phrase but it’s what happened to me this morning reading your words). Much of life truly is congested with the mundane and then on top of all that I have the “real life” stuff that is WAY more important yet just makes me feel inundated with the entirety of life itself. Then if I add the internet and social media and the fact I’m looking for an agent and I’m overwhelmed with it all and there are NOT enough hours in a day. So, I need to prioritize and work on what is most important and thus ignore some of the things I know are really really NOT crucial. I need to get perspective and that takes work as well. As Graeme said, it’s oft times the interactions with people that helps with the writing. That’s an important thing that often doesn’t happen when I’m sequestered in my little writing venue.
    Thank you for all your suggestions. You helped me a lot today.

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    • says

      Patricia,

      It can be so hard to find that balance–to be in relationships that sustain and feed us as human beings, but not let all our energies get depleted for doing our life’s work.

      (And I quite like the word resonated! )

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  7. Baxter Clare Trautman says

    Thank you so much for this post. I’m languishing (isn’t that a lovely word?) between books right now, one just released and the last due out next spring. I promised myself I would start writing again in March, but near the end of February I still had no idea what I wanted to write. I live in California, where my land has been affected by the drought, and apparently my creativity, too. I think the well, if not dry, needs time to recharge. I’ve been writing consistently for twenty years, from one book to the next, and while “at my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near” I am giving myself permission to not write until I am joyfully inspired to. It’s a little frightening. Writing is a huge part of my identity and I’m somewhat lost without the discipline and demand of it. Yet I also have faith that clear direction will come from this period of seemingly aimless wandering. So thanks for the reassurance.

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    • says

      Baxter, I, too, am between books (and also live in poor drought-plagued California) but I am relishing that fallow period between projects, letting my mind run rampant with new ideas and seeing where the lead. Or I will be, once I get over my post deadline exhaustion.

      Sometimes, when I am near burnout, I force myself not to write for a bit to remind myself how much I miss it and come back to it fresh.

      Here’s hoping the perfect, joy-filled idea comes to you soon!

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  8. says

    Today was a great day for me to read this post, especially: “Often, finding the time to write isn’t only about the physical, butt in chair time, but about the more difficult task of finding the mental space and sustained concentration needed for creating.” Having been a task-oriented ToDo List kind of person for most of my life, I had to find a different approach to writing. After all, putting “Be Creative” on my list of things to do is laughable. (Laughable, maybe, but not funny.)

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  9. says

    Soft censorship is a huge problem for me, and I don’t even write YA (at least, not currently). When I was writing for the fun of it, I didn’t have a problem writing exactly what I thought and I didn’t give two shakes whether other people liked it. Then I self-published the first novel I deemed fit for public eyes and learned, very quickly, that people are vicious.

    Now when I write I constantly have to fight the angel on my shoulder whispering, “Um…the heroine can’t say that. It’s too controversial. Oh, you have to make the hero and heroine a couple in the end, or people might get upset like last time. It doesn’t matter that this isn’t a romance. There’s a male and a female so there must be romance. Oh no no no! You can’t joke about that! People will miss the point and get offended! There will be riots! Book burnings! Snippy posts by self-righteous amateur bloggers! Take it back take it back take it back!”

    But if you’re ever going to write something that says something, you’re going to step on toes. Many toes. No matter what you write, there will be at least three massive groups of people who will hate you. The only way to stay safe is to never write at all.

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    • Tina Goodman says

      Tamara: People are vicious. And people are kind. Controversy can be great for sales!
      Write on!

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  10. says

    Great post and comments. I love your description in your reply to Baxter: “relishing the fallow period.” I’ve been letting my mind wander lately, as well. It’s funny, I had a project I was going to leave in the drawer, and during my current “fallow period,” the darn thing started knocking on the drawer. I let it out to play a few weeks ago. It’s a great reminder that I love this stuff.

    And your post is either a reminder of how lucky I am, or just plain frightening–I’m not sure which. I live in a fairly remote area, with only my supportive spouse. I am distracted by the internet (often), but I’m blessed with (as Warren Zevon called it) Splendid Isolation. I’m frightened by both the idea of soft censorship and having readers in my head as I write.

    So I guess it’s both–you’ve made me feel lucky and frightened. I always love your posts, Robin. Thanks for sharing the wisdom of your experience!

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  11. says

    One destination, a thousand paths.

    I’ve been dealing with similar issues for some time now — not distractions, not others, but simply too many tasks, all urgent. If I could clone myself, only one of my clones gets to lead a lovely, languid life lolling solely in literature. (My, all those ells just slipped away from me…)

    I’ve found the work of Dr. Eric Maisel very helpful (google his books). He’s written extensively about the need to create even in the midst of it all. There will never be a perfect time when everything settles down, no distractions, no worries. This is it. Life is messy. So put writing first. That simple notion actually works very well.

    Also, I’m spending much less time writing comments in my favorite blogs (except when I can’t resist, of course).

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  12. Marcy McKay says

    EXCELLENT post, Robin. I’m guilty of every distraction you mentioned. My 2 kids are teens now, but when they were little I wrote from 5-7 am before they awoke for the day. I still do and it’s my “best” writing time because the mental noise hasn’t started in for the day and my brain isn’t awake enough to torture me with my own personal mental noise. It’s like writing in a dream state…

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  13. says

    Hi Robin. You have certainly ‘hit the nail on the head’ for
    me. How to negotiate inner and outer dreaming and action! Life
    pulls us away from our deep inner essence and we can marginalise
    that part of us. I never thought I would get distracted from
    writing my new novel! Little did I know that the world of reading
    blogs and articles to ‘market’ my 1st book would pull me away. At
    the same time, I am learning so much and very appreciative to you
    and others who give us so much information, time and
    energy.

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  14. says

    Great post and so perfect for where I’m at right now.

    Life in general has mostly been tugging at my lately, the harsh kind of tugging that has me wanting to curl up in a ball and hide from there world. The short version is — there’s been a lot going on.

    The fun tugging is the joy of playing with my niece and interacting on sites exactly like this one. :)

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  15. says

    Thank you for this! Reality quickly dispelled the myth that stay-at-home motherhood would bring not only endless fodder for my writing, but greater opportunity to write. Nothing, not even growing up with eight siblings of my own, could have prepared me for how demanding, both physically and mentally, raising a houseful of kids would be. Gone are the days when a mother could just send her kids outside unsupervised from dawn till dusk. I literally drool over a friend’s annual escape to her “writers’ island” retreat. But stealing snippets of time here and there I finally managed to crank a novel out, which proves that though you may not be able to eat your cake all at once, enough crumbs together still taste sweet!

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  16. says

    “To create, we have to go inward and listen. One needs freedom to get lost in the flow. To get bored. For some, this can be easy to accomplish, for others, not so much. A lot will depend on our temperament and stage of life.”

    Oh, gosh, yes! The one thing I can’t seem to get anyone in my world to understand is that efficiency and production are sometimes the enemy of flow, and freedom to fall into flow means not having the underlying tension of expecting to be interrupted!

    Thank you!

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